70 years of NATO: the Alliance in troubled waters
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70 years of NATO: the Alliance in troubled waters

08 Jan 2019 - 15:56
Photo: U.S. Department of Defense / Flickr ©
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The resurgence of a strategic external threat has not resulted in a firmly united NATO. As the Trans-Atlantic Alliance is preparing itself for its 70th anniversary in April 2019, the NATO cornerstone is crumbling under the combined weight of Trump, the East-South divide and Turkey.

After two decades of out-of-area operations, from the Balkans to Afghanistan, NATO has returned to its original core task: deterrence and territorial defence. Since the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the start of Moscow’s interference in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, Article 5 has retaken its priority position in the Alliance’s list of main tasks.1 Russia’s assertive foreign policy, its military intervention in Syria, its chemical weapons attack on the Skripals in the United Kingdom, its intelligence service actions – in particular the intended cyber-attack on the OPCW2 in The Hague – have all underscored the need for a strong and credible Alliance, adapted to the security needs of the 21st century. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the resurgence of a strategic external threat has not resulted in a firmly united NATO. Three major internal issues are eroding the cohesion of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance as it is preparing itself for its 70th anniversary in April 2019: Trump, the East-South divide and Turkey.3

US Marines traverse arctic terrain on skis near Moen, Norway as part of a NATO-exercise. © NATO / Flickr

The Trump factor 
Since Donald Trump has entered the White House a dark cloud is hanging over the Trans-Atlantic relationship. With his ‘America First’ campaign President Trump is primarily challenging Europe in terms of economic protection, by the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate agreement and by stepping out of the Iran deal. Nevertheless, the security and defence relationship between the US and Europe has entered a new phase too. Doubts have been raised on the US commitment to Europe’s security, despite repeated statements by the American Vice President, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State in favour of NATO. Under their pressure Trump is no longer openly questioning the existence of the Alliance, but he has turned the burden-sharing issue into a key measurement tool for future US investment in Europe’s security. In his two sentences directed at former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis: “You can have your NATO. But you become the rent collector.”4 European countries will be held accountable for realising the target of spending 2% GNP on defence, as was agreed at the NATO Summit in 2014. Bad performers can expect a barrage of tweets from the White House if they will not show a credible national plan to realise the NATO target by 2024.5

There are more American troops in Europe today than at the end of the Obama administration

Trump will continue to connect the issue to the bilateral trade balance and other topics, judging NATO countries individually. Never before has an American President been so critical about key European partners such as Germany. Never before have staunch supporters of the Trans-Atlantic link questioned the US commitment to Europe’s security. According to a 2018 poll 56% of Germans thought that German-US relations were in bad shape and only 11% had confidence in the US President – contrary to 86% in the last year of President Obama’s tenure.6 French President Macron’s relationship with Trump can be characterised by its ups and downs; the latter may also be accredited to his own calls for a European Army.7

Yet, it is also true that the US is strengthening its military presence and activity in Europe. There are more American troops in Europe today than at the end of the Obama administration. The budget to reinforce military capabilities under the European Deterrence Initiative has almost doubled from $ 3.4 billion (2017) to $ 6.5 billion (2019). In addition to permanently stationed forces, the US continuously rotates personnel for an Armored Brigade Combat Team and an Aviation Combat Brigade. Prepositioned stocks for a division-sized force are again filling depots in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. US forces are participating in one NATO exercise after another. Bringing military reinforcements to Europe, not executed since the end of the Cold War, is being executed with the Port of Rotterdam playing a key role as a reception and staging area – such as for exercise Trident Juncture in November 2018.

Combat training of the U.S. Air Force near Hawaii. © U.S. Department of Defense

There is a big contrast between the tweets from the White House and the real measures taken by the United States. However, at the end of the day, also the Secretary of Defence will hold the European Allies accountable for the efforts to increase their share of the defence burden. After the resignation of Jim Mattis – a true believer and practitioner of defence cooperation in NATO – the European Allies might have lost their last friend in the Trump administration. When US military presence in Europe will be reduced, the real alarm bells should be ringing. For the moment, there are no signs pointing in such a direction. But whatever will happen, the pressure from Washington on Europe to invest more in defence will not wither away, even if the White House were to enter post-Trump years. The US itself will increasingly be challenged by the changing global order, in particular by China. The importance of the Pacific and East Asia will demand a stepped-up American military effort. Europe will have no other choice than to increase its own defence investment.     

East vs. South
A lack of unity also characterises the relationship between the European NATO members. East European Allies – the Baltic States and Poland foremost – regard Russia as the biggest threat. They strongly argue for concentrating investment on territorial defence capabilities. The more Allied forces that are present on their soil, the better it serves to mitigate their primary security concerns. Southern NATO members are mainly worried about the spill-over effects from instability and conflict in the Middle East and Africa, such as migration, terrorism and organised international crime. Their security mindset is different, less oriented on strengthening heavy armed forces and more on expanding naval, coastguard and border protection capabilities. This is reflected in the national responses to the NATO 2% spending target. Italy and Spain have publicly stated that they will disregard the target8 , while Poland and the Baltic States are already spending or will soon spend 2% of their GNP on defence.

The challenges from the East will continue to dominate the NATO efforts to reinforce its deterrence and defence posture

NATO is struggling with the question of how to better balance the dominating security interests of its Eastern and Southern European members. The NATO Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean increases maritime situational awareness, which supports EU and national activities in the areas of border protection activities and the fight against terrorism. However, political motives – i.e. to fly the NATO flag in the Mediterranean – rather than military requirements triggered the launching of Operation Sea Guardian in 2016. Ships and other assets could easily have been deployed in the context of the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR)– Mediterranean Sophia which had started a year earlier. It will remain difficult for the Alliance to play a major role in addressing the main security concern of its Southern member states. The leading actors in border protection and the fight against terrorism are civilian institutions (police, customs, coast guard, etc.) and hard military power is of little use. The Alliance’s involvement might be better served by stepping up its assistance to local actors through capacity-building and by further exploring the scope for partnerships with countries in the region. NATO territory in the South will not be threatened by large-scale military force. Thus, the challenges from the East will continue to dominate the NATO efforts to reinforce its deterrence and defence posture – with Southern European Allies reluctantly contributing.

A once staunch NATO member guarding the Alliance’s southeastern flank for a long time, Turkey has now developed into a troublemaker. Under President Erdogan, Turkey has become a semi-autocratic state, drifting away from secular Kemalism to a more conservative and religious orientation. To prevent a further expansion of the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria, Ankara has militarily intervened and now occupies several parts of the territory of its southern neighbour. The trilateral diplomacy with Iran and Russia has raised eyebrows among NATO Allies. A series of incidents have marked the growing tensions between Ankara and Washington. Turkey’s announcement in December 2017 that it would procure Russian S-400 air defence missiles has resulted in the US reaction to impose sanctions as soon as the contract has been signed. The delivery of 100 F35 fighter aircraft to Turkey is seriously endangered.

With regard to NATO, Turkey is showing a double face

The US-Turkey relationship has reached a historic low point. The December 2019 announcement of President Trump to withdraw the US forces form Syria has resulted in a positive reply by Erdogan. Without the American support the Syrian-Kurdish YPG fighters, labelled as ‘terrorists’ by Ankara, will become more vulnerable to potential Turkish military action. Yet, a lot more has to happen to improve the US-Turkey relationship. At the meantime, several European countries are experiencing Ankara’s ‘long arm’ of influencing Turkish minorities within their borders. Germany and the Netherlands have experienced several incidents, in particular in the run-up to the Turkish presidential elections of June 2018. Pragmatic deals such as the agreement with the EU to halt the influx of refugees and migrants from Turkish territory are still possible, but the trend is that Turkey and Europe are increasingly drifting apart.

With regard to NATO, Turkey is showing a double face. On the one hand, the country continues to regard the Alliance as indispensable for its security. Turkey contributes to several NATO operations, in the Middle East and in Kosovo. On the other hand, President Erdogan has openly questioned NATO membership if the US sanctions are not lifted. Turkish officers, appointed to positions in the NATO command chain before the 2016 coup, have been ordered to return to Turkey and many of them have ended in court accused of supporting the coup. Erdogan uses the term “Atlanticists” for these ex-NATO officers. In other words, Atlanticism has a negative connotation in Turkey. A poll in 2017 showed that the Turkish population is regarding the US as a bigger threat to the country’s security than Russia or China.9 There is also a serious danger of the Turkish military becoming less NATO-oriented and more pro-Russian.10 With his party (the APK) increasingly getting a grip on many state institutions and generating considerable support among the population, the odds are on the further Erdoganisation of Turkey in the near future.

All in all, it seems that the NATO cornerstone is crumbling under the combined weight of Trump, the East-South divide and Turkey. Allied declarations and statements express the principles of solidarity and mutual support, but in reality the Alliance has become a family characterised by mistrust and serious tensions among its members. NATO has gone through several internal crises in its long history, from Suez (1956) via the French withdrawal from the command structure (1966) to the cruise missiles debate in the 1980s. Today, it is facing several internal problems at the same time, while Russia is closely watching the weakening of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance. Most likely, NATO will survive but the question is ‘what NATO?’. More European defence cooperation can certainly help to strengthen the Alliance, assuming it is carried out not in competition but in cooperation with NATO. To be more blunt: without a stepped-up European contribution, the future of a credible and effective Alliance is at stake.

  • 1NATO has three main tasks: territorial defence (Article 5); crisis management (Non-Article 5); cooperation and partnerships. Since the Wales Summit (September 2014) the Alliance’s efforts to strengthen its deterrence and defence posture have focussed on the Article 5 task.
  • 2Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
  • 3This article is partly based on: Dick Zandee, The Future of NATO – Fog over the Atlantic? Strategic Monitor 2018-2019
  • 4Bob Woodward, Fear – Trump in the White House, Simon & Schuster, September 2018.
  • 5The National Plan on the Defence Investment Pledge of the Netherlands was sent to NATO and the Dutch Parliament mid-December 2019. It announces additional extra financial resources for defence but contains no answer to the question if and how the Netherlands will realise the NATO 2% target. See: National plan on the Defence Investment Pledge – the Netherlands.
  • 6Dorothy Manevich, Richard Wike, Americans Say U.S.-German Relations Are in Good Shape, but Germans Disagree, PEW Research Center, February 2018.
  • 7Such as on the eve of the ceremonies to commemorate the end of World War I. See: Julian Borger, Trump says Macron’s call for European army is ‘insulting’, The Guardian, 9 Nov. 2018.
  • 8The Italian and Portuguese Ministers of Defence have stated that their national percentages will approximately stay the same as in 2018: 1.2% (Italy) and 1.4% (Portugal). Spain will not realise the 2% target, but is aiming to increase its defence spending.
  • 9In 2017, 72% of the Turkish population considered the US as a threat to Turkey compared to 44% in 2013. See: 72 percent of Turkish citizens see US as security threat, Hürriyet Daily News, August 2, 2017.
  • 10Yaprak Gürsoy and Ilke Toygür, Turkey in and out of NATO? An instance of a turbulent alliance with Western institutions (11 June 2018)


Dick Zandee
Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute.